More than either side of the ball, special teams is very much cyclical in nature. While there are some personnel decisions that are made largely based on players’ special teams abilities—assembling the best 53-man roster, and not the best 53 players—the unit largely plays second fiddle to players’ primary positions on either offense or defense, and receives whatever is left over.
The Pittsburgh Steelers have taken more hits, and significant hits, to their special teams units over the past two years than is typical. Just this offseason, they lost three of their biggest names over the past four years in that phase, namely Tyler Matakevich (who led the league in special teams tackles over that span), Anthony Chickillo, and Roosevelt Nix. Also gone are Sean Davis and Johnny Holton, who had previously replaced Darrius Heyward-Bey, and no surrogate was ever found for L.J. Fort’s loss the year before.
Pittsburgh has boosted its special teams during the offseason, however, particularly with the signing of Derek Watt at fullback, who is a 300-snaps-a-year-type player in that phase. In the draft, they have found some very willing contributors in Chase Claypool, Antoine Brooks, and Alex Highsmith, their outside linebacker, who is ready to take that on.
“I’m so excited. Special teams is something I take pride in”, the third-round pick told reporters after he was drafted, via teleconference. “I know how important it is to winning games and how key it is. I feel like that’s another thing I bring to the table”.
“That’s something that I did starting more at Charlotte”, he added, expanding upon his experience playing special teams. “My first two years I played kickoff, punt, kickoff return. So I’m willing to do whatever it takes. Whatever role I’ve got to play to help this team win games. That’s what I’m going to do. I’m excited to be able to play special teams and play outside backer. I’m just ready to learn so much and just can’t wait”.
Chances are very good that Highsmith sees more snaps during his rookie season on special teams than he does on defense, though the Steelers would like to see him earn the number three spot on the outside linebacker depth chart behind T.J. Watt and Bud Dupree, the latter of whom is currently only under contract for 2020.
Pittsburgh by no means drafted Highsmith to boost their special teams. As Mike Tomlin said, they’ve got three Heisman Trophy quarterbacks leading their divisional opponents, and they need guys to hunt those guys down, plain and simple.
But as almost all linebackers do, he’s first going to cut his teeth chasing down return men and blocking for his own. And it’s a role he should expect to retain for years to come.